The dark side of social media

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By ELVIS ONDIEKI
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Shortly before 10am on Valentine’s Day, Mary Wambui received a message on her phone.

It was from a man who was probably lonely on the day meant for lovers.

“Just read a post that u (sic) (are) interested in a man,” said part of the message.

She would later learn that someone had made a post on a popular Facebook group alongside her photo.

The caption read: “I am looking for a young man to date and spoil preferably between 20-25 years. Call or text me either on 072[protected] or 072[protected]. Only serious people.”

The post, with both her numbers advertised, was still available online by Saturday on a Facebook group called “Gor Mahia FC – Worldwide”.

Ms Wambui told Nation that one Facebook user, through a pseudonym, has been posting her photo in many groups with the same message.

“I got so many calls and texts till I had an emotional melt down,” said Ms Wambui, a businesswoman. “She kept posting into so many groups I had to switch off my number at some point affecting my work and business,” she added.

Ms Wambui is a statistic in the growing trend of annoyance through Facebook that is often propagated through groups and which was cited as having contributed to the suicide of a 29-year-old woman in Nairobi on May 13.

Mostly using fake names, a crop of Facebook users is making life miserable to a section of Kenyans through posts packed with wild allegations and psychologists now want intervention before it becomes a full-blown problem.

Nairobi-based businessman Tonnie Nyanja had to enlist police help recently to deal with a group of people who were levelling what he says were false allegations against him.

“We were six of us accused of defrauding people,” he said. “They were all pseudo accounts. Plus all the people who commented saying they had been conned also had fake accounts,” Mr Nyanja said.

He added: “Cybercrime detectives followed the IP (Internet Protocol) address to a cyber cafe in town. CCTV cameras had the man wearing a hood. The other five people are all people I have grown up with.”

Another woman, who requested not to be named because she was unsure which information released would be in contempt of a case she has in court, said a story was once posted about her online and it turned her life upside down.

“My clients went on panic mode and took me to the police,” she said and added: “People insulted me, called me names and l lost clients. I almost closed down my business.”

A senior officer at the agency charged with regulating the communication channels in Kenya says that one headache in checking against such harassment is that most of the social media platforms are not Kenyan.

Mr Vincent Ngundi, the assistant director of cyber security e-commerce at the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA), says the process of handling such cases is relatively long.

“Facebook is not a Kenyan company. It’s a company that’s based in the US. What we do is that we have engagements even with social media providers like Facebook,” he said during a recent interview with NTV on the topic of cyberbullying.

“We work in collaboration with the police because they have a very close collaboration with them (Facebook). Then we work with the various social media providers or whatever it is, to be able to resolve it,” added Mr Ngundi, urging any Kenyan who feels maligned to report to a dedicated CA portal.

A Facebook group called “Buyer Beware – Kenya (ORIGINAL)”, with over 87,000 members, is among those accused of propagating reputation damage against a number of people.

Ms Mildred Owiso, one of its administrators, was unapologetic when Nation sought to know whether she knew the effect of some of the posts made in the group. For a post to be visible to members, an administrator has to approve it.

“I am not answerable to anyone on how I approve posts. Approving posts isn’t the only job I have. I got a life besides approving posts and that’s the last thing I would expect someone of your calibre to put across to me,” she wrote in response to our queries.

She added: “I am not responsible for what others do or say on social media. Do not for a minute give me unnecessary responsibility. The only account I am responsible for is mine.”

A check on popular Facebook groups reveals a jaw-dropping level of don’t-care attitudes in terms of the posts made and the responses given.

From marital problems to financial issues to plain salacity, the issues in the posts are as varied as the pseudonyms used, and according to Mrs Josephine Mong’are, the chairperson of the Federation of Women Lawyers (Fida)-Kenya, a support system is needed urgently.

“We need religious organisations and schools to start talking to this generation that has found themselves with the Internet without regulation, without control,” she said.

Mrs Mong’are added that people should tone down on airing their issues on social media.

“We seek approval as women out there, and most of us go to that Internet for approval. And that’s why we post all our personal problems on Facebook. Then if we’re not getting validation, we go into depression; and any comment now becomes an attack on you,” she said.

“If I’m in a site and I don’t like what they’re posting, I just exit,” added Mrs Mong’are.

Psychologist Mbutu Kariuki said the recent happenings are a tip of the iceberg.

“The whole issue of mental health in Kenya is seriously neglected,” he said.

As for cases like Ms Wambui’s, criminal lawyer John Swaka calls for an urgent enactment of laws to stop bullies on their tracks.

“There ought to be legislation that directly deals with things to do with cyber bullying, and stuff to do with cybercrime. You realise that the law that we have right now, especially under the Communication Information Act, does not zero in on cyber bullying,” he told NTV.

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